CORRECTION: This article was originally posted with an incorrect byline.
First came the traffic, then the heat, then the Yiddish oratory, and finally the dancing.
On Aug. 1, what should have been a 20-minute drive to MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford from my Essex County home took over two hours. But I didn’t fret that I would arrive late.
Sure, the Siyum HaShas is a once-in-every-seven-years event.
Sure, this was the largest-ever single mega-event of its kind, marking the completion of the latest daf yomi course of daily Talmud study, which had its genesis in Europe in the 1920s. (The last siyum in the U.S., held in 2005, attracted 50,000 participants in three venues: Madison Square Garden and the Jacob Javits Center in New York City, and the Izod Arena — then Continental Arena — in New Jersey.)
But I knew that every car stuck in traffic around me was heading where I was: The women all wore sheitels (wigs) and dresses with long sleeves despite the August heat; most of the men had payes and wore black hats, white shirts, and black jackets. Even those dressed in more modern garb sported the black velvet kipot popular among the fervently Orthodox.
So, I reasoned, even if I missed the 12th Siyum HaShas, at least I knew we would all miss it together.
Eventually, I arrived at the stadium, my i.d. was checked by security personnel, and my car was duly sniffed by a member of the K-9 squad.
The heavy throngs waiting to get in were gone, but there were still plenty of black-hatted men gathered outside, taking a break from the heat, or for a cigarette.
Passing the men’s entrance, a woman and her husband agreed to meet me at a particular spot after the event. She and I headed toward the women’s area, marked off for the occasion by what organizers, the Agudath Israel of America, called a $250,000 mehitza.
As I headed up the escalator, I realized, too late, I had made a terrible mistake. I had stepped onto the men’s elevator. A few accusing stares from my riding companions confirmed my transgression.
Arriving at the 300 section, I made my way around the hallway scene of well-groomed teen and tween girls in ankle-length skirts and long sleeves meeting and greeting. There were hugs and kisses, names called out in delight, and the distinct chatter of adolescence. Well past this stage of life, I headed toward the bleachers.
At first sight, the arena appeared as a sea of black and white — organizers put the attendance at more than 90,000, a record for the home stadium of the Jets and Giants football teams. (The apocalyptic traffic reports on the all-news stations seemed to confirm the numbers.) From this high up — the women’s section was in the top-most tier of the stands — it was impossible to make out the speakers on the field-level dais; most watched the broadcast on a large screen. Thousands of women filled most of the 300 section. As I turned to focus on them, some turned away from the camera or covered their faces, unwilling to have their photos taken for modesty reasons.
But others offered smiles and conversation. They were mostly from Monsey, Brooklyn, Long Island, or Lakewood. One woman had traveled from Minnesota with her three daughters for the evening (the men in the family were below, in the men’s section). It was a “special,” “unbelievable,” and “extraordinary” moment for them, they said. Although they themselves hadn’t studied the daily Talmud passages — in fervently Orthodox communities, women as a rule don’t study Talmud — they expressed pride for the men who had done the learning.
“We don’t study, but we let the men go; we facilitate their study,” explained a woman from Monsey.
One woman I spoke with, Malka Neustadt, also from Monsey, came without her husband. He is a Satmar Hasid and, owing to community rivalries and distinctions, she said, would take part in a different siyum, or completion. “I didn’t grow up a hasid,” she said, explaining her presence.
She asked if I would be taking photos of the men. I said technically I was not permitted in their section. She pointed to a photographer — a fervently Orthodox man — who had made his way into the women’s section to get a bird’s-eye view of the crowd below.
“He’s here,” the woman said. “You should be able to go there for photos.”
I took up her challenge. Easing into the men’s section, I tried to be unobtrusive and stayed in the back. The ticket guard saw my media credentials and pointed out that it was “frowned upon by the rabbis” for me to be on the floor, but he let me pass. When someone asked, “Should she be here?” he answered, “She’s a reporter. She’s just taking some pictures.” No one else commented.
After taking a couple of shots, I returned to the women’s section. All the while, dignitaries — including Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, the Novominsker rebbe; Rabbi Aryeh Malkiel Kotler, rosh yeshiva of Beis Medrash Gevohah in Lakewood; and Rabbi Yitzchok Scheiner, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Kamenitz in Jerusalem — were offering speeches mostly in Yiddish.
They celebrated the gedolim (exalted ones) who initiated the daf yomi — literally, a page a day — study as a way to unite Jewish learners around the world. Among these was Rabbi Pinchas Teitz, who founded the Orthodox community in Elizabeth. They celebrated the children who came to the event and the cumulative learning that had been undertaken over the past seven years.
“Fortunate is the person who sees, who experiences, this great gathering,” said Rabbi Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz, emcee of the event. “Try to visualize the singing and dancing that's going on right now in hashamayim [heaven], watching tens of thousands celebrating the masechtos [tractates] they worked on so diligently.”
During the speeches and lessons, many of the women chatted or ate food they had brought along. They went to concession stands to purchase water or chips or cookies. Some took out cell phones and described the events to friends, or listened to the English translation provided via cellphone. None seemed to complain about the oppressive heat.
Finally, the climactic moment of the evening arrived: the session that would complete the Talmud study. “Siman tov umazel tov,” the gathering sang as the floor crowd erupted into dancing, and many men danced in the aisles.
At least one person sitting in the bleachers did not dance. Overcome with emotion, Kenny Saibel of West Orange said, “It was very powerful to watch the dancing, and people did participate in the stands. But it gave me the opportunity to sit back and have my own emotions. It was a very emotional time for me,” he said.
Though Saibel attended yeshivot throughout his youth, he said, “I don’t consider myself a very learned person.” Still, for his 40th birthday, he asked for a set of Talmud to begin the daf yomi. Once he had made the commitment, he said, he stayed the course for seven-and-a-half years. “It wasn’t easy. It takes drive, determination, and focus,” he said.
Among the singers and dancers at the siyum was Rabbi Levi Wolosow of Chabad of Western Monmouth County and the Chabad of Morganville, who has led a daf yomi class for the last five years. He called the event “very festive and very energetic.”
Seven years of diligent study and three hours in traffic were as nothing when he heard the Kaddish d’rabbanan, the scholar’s benediction recited after studying holy text.
“It was so special, the joint Kaddish sanctifying God’s name at the conclusion of finishing the whole Talmud,” he said. “Sanctifying God’s name is an unbelievable way to be with so many people on such a special occasion.”